This is the long-awaited conclusion to a piece first run by Wild Violet on September 24, 2010. While it was never our intention to wait so long to run the second installment of John Hitchner’s piece, sometimes real life intervenes. In this case, I had just brought home my newborn baby, and was in the midst of “baby boot camp.” By the time we resumed our production schedule, my baby-frazzled brain completely overlooked the fact that we had not run the second installment. While going through old files, I was recently reminded of the omission. So here, at long last, it is!
~ Alyce Wilson, Wild Violet editor
You can begin by reading part one.
Early June during my high school years was time between things. I was not a child now, I was not an adult. No more high school, no more Sunday School until after Labor Day. What would I do in my free time? At fifteen, I was too old to ride my bicycle around town, and too young for a New Jersey driver learner’s permit. I was also jobless but expected to “chip in around the house and yard,” as my mother and father expressed it. “Keep those leg and arm muscles strong for football try-outs,” Dad urged me one Saturday morning, and pointed to the yard rake and push mower in the garage.
“Get a power mower like Mr. Outerbridge,” I replied.
“I–” he began but stopped. He stepped toward me, cocked his head, and placed his hands on his hips. His dark brown eyes challenged me as he asked, “How do you know Ed Outerbridge has a power mower?”
“I went by Ledden’s the other day,” I said, referring to Lorrence’s lawn and garden products store. “I saw him and one of the Ledden guys put the mower in Mr. Outerbridge’s pick-up.”
My father narrowed his eyes and looked out at the yard. He nodded as if he agreed with the event I had just described, and then he said, “Ed doesn’t need a power mower. His yard’s not that big. He had a pick-up, too? Was anybody else with him?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Why?”
“Nothing,” he said.
By my mid-teens I had learned implications of my father’s “Nothing” to me. “Nothing” implied he dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand or the turn of a newspaper page in order to move on to matters more interesting. “Nothing” also implied he wanted more information about the subject before he would agree or disagree. On this June Saturday, Dad followed the second implication. His dark eyes slid away from mine to our garage’s cinder floor. He spoke abruptly, as if preoccupied with more serious matters. “The grass is a little high. You might as well get started on it now. I sharpened the blades, so they should cut pretty well.”
“Wanna toss a few?” I asked him, trying to lighten his mood. “I’ll get the football. I’ll be able to push the mower better after I loosen my arm.”
He smiled. “Just a few.”
Air currents within a house change according to subjects of conversation. How the day went, plans for dinner with friends create mild air within rooms. Who’s having “trouble” stirs uncertain air.
Still, the afternoon sun through kitchen windows highlights white enamel of door and window frames, coats a dusty shine to ivy and Christmas cactus leaves on windowsills. Cabinets are opened and closed with snug pulls and pushes. Chairs slide against the floor without interference. Words may be few, their meanings simple: “I’ve got the directors’ meeting tomorrow,” my father would say, referring to the Lorrence National Bank Board of Directors meeting he was required to attend. “I’ll be late for dinner.”
“Maybe we should eat downtown?” my mother would ask.
I was always included in my parents use of “we.” One June thunder-showery evening that summer, when I met them at their favorite downtown restaurant, I feasted on a hot roast beef sandwich, fries, and cole slaw, all washed down with iced tea. On our way out, we said hello to Dr. and Mrs. Wilson. After initial greetings and pleasantries, the professor glanced at me, adjusted his rimless glasses, leaned toward my parents and said, “That matter we talked about the other day? Things are not well.”
The pleasant air shifted to uncertain.
My mother turned to me and said, “You go on…We’ll meet you outside. Here, take my umbrella.”
“I don’t need it,” I said. In my adolescent point of view, the use of an umbrella was another sign of being a sissy.
Dr. Wilson dabbed his mouth with a napkin and waved a dismissive hand at me. “Misfortunes of the adult world, David. I’ll send your parents out to you in short order. Nice to have seen you, yes.”
In the car my mother untied her plastic, transparent rain hat and fluffed her hair. She was a neat dresser, her blouses, skirts, and dress always clean, and pressed. Wearing the transparent rain hat, though, made her look older. Sometimes, when I was not with friends, I kidded her about the hat; when she was with my friends and me, I did not like to see my mother wear any dress or coat or hat that made her look like someone’s aunt or grandmother.
My father turned down the collar of his suit coat. Looking at me in the rearview mirror, he said, “You won’t have to mow the lawn tomorrow. Grass’ll be too wet.”
“Good,” I said. Then, on the way home I asked, “What was that all about with Dr. Wilson?”
“What do you mean?” Dad asked. I saw the upper part of his face in the rearview mirror. His eyes held mine, as they had that Saturday morning in the garage. Rain on the windshield, hood, and roof sounded like pebbles on glass and metal. The rain swept by the wipers looked like ribbons.
“What you were talking about? Why’d I have to go outside?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“How come it’s always nothing?” I asked, half-kidding, half-serious.
“It’s not always nothing,” he said. “Some things are not your concern, that’s all. You’ve got more important things to think about this summer.”
“Lots of things: chores, getting in shape for football…”
He drifted to another topic: he and my mother spending a future weekend in Cape May.
I drifted, too. I thought about my newest chore, a part-time job Dad had arranged for me: mowing lawns at Holy Trinity and at the rectory across the street, easy tasks with the church’s power mower. After my lawn-mowing chores, Father Hepplewhite, in black trousers and black short-sleeve shirt rimmed at the neck with a stiff white collar, treated me to lemonade on the rectory’s back porch. His conversation consisted of questions about my upcoming sophomore year, comments about the persistent hot weather, and his thanks for my labor: “You did a nice job. It really makes the yard look nicer.” His tongue clicked against the roof of his mouth, a sound I had not noticed when he performed Sunday services.
“What do you think about heaven, Father?” It was right there, a spur-of-the-moment question, but I didn’t care.
My question surprised him, so much so that he chuckled as he apparently gathered his thoughts. I wished that Joey and Wayne were with me to hear Father Hepplewhite’s answer.
“Heaven is a beautiful place in our hearts, David,” he began. “It’s a place where you keep all the love you have for friends and family you are close to, including ones who have passed away.”
I understood his words but could not visualize them. “Is heaven where they go when they die?”
He tapped his hand near the pocket on the front of his shirt. “In here, David. In your heart.”
“Do you really believe that?”
He chuckled again. “Yes, I do…Very much.”
“Do you think God can really see us?” I asked him. “You and me and everybody else? Does He really watch over us?”
“In His own way, yes, He does. We can’t see Him watch over us, of course, but perhaps sometimes we can feel His presence.” Once again I realized he was an inch or two taller than I was. At fifteen, though, I was confident that someday I would grow taller than he. “I have to visit someone who is ill, David, but I’m glad you’re interested in these things. Thank you for your questions. We must talk again sometime.”
We shook hands. I thanked him for the lemonade and went on my way. I was not in a hurry to talk again with Father Hepplewhite, and I hoped that God, if He really was omnipotent, could not that day read my heart.
Even though the Sunday School year had ended, I still had to perform my duty as crucifer once a month. My mother had agreed with Father Hepplewhite to schedule acolytes for the summer. She included me on her list.
“No,” I complained the afternoon she walked into the living room and showed me the schedule. I looked away from the paper that announced ‘David Harper, Crucifer – June 25, 11:00 Morning Prayer’ and tried to concentrate on the Phillies-Pirates game on TV—the bottom half of the third, two on, no outs, Phillies at bat. “It’s summer. I’m sleeping in.”
“No you’re not. It’s not going to hurt you to do something for the church once a month.”
She had broken my concentration. Before I realized the impact of the question, I asked, “What’s church done for me?”
She switched off the television and took three steps toward the sofa, where I sat, feet on the coffee table in front of it. When my mother was angry at me, she did not slam doors; she did not throw things; she did not scream and yell. She spoke in a calm but firm voice, as if she was explaining the logical process of solving a problem in algebra. In a carefully modulated voice she asked, “What did you say?”
“What’s it done for me…the church? And what’s it done for you? What do you get out of it?”
“David, how can you ask such things? Where in the world— What have you been thinking about?”
“About a lot of stuff. Church, mostly. I don’t see why I have to go if I don’t want to. I’m not sure about God and heaven and all the other stuff I’m supposed to believe in. I don’t get it.”
Now she seemed to measure the distance between her and the chair behind her. She walked slowly, carefully to the chair, sat down, and combed her hair away from her forehead with her fingers.
She lowered her voice and said, “I hope your memory is good right now, because it better be.”
“Why?” I asked, my voice a weak challenge.
“Because Dad and I have made sure that you’ve gone to Sunday School and learned something. Now, I’m not so sure you have. You go to church because you’ve been confirmed. That makes you a member of the church. You go because Dad and I believe it’s important that you take part in the service. You don’t just go to church and sit there and then go home, David. You need to believe in what you can’t see. You need to be a part of things and give back to something that’s helped you.”
My statements and questions had already wounded her. I did not want to hurt her feelings any more, but I was angry because I wanted freedom from schedules and chores and church. I looked away from her and said, “I don’t see how church has helped me. It’s just—I don’t know, Mom. Going to church is a chore… something you and Dad say I have to do. I don’t get anything out of it. It’s a waste of time.”